by Tim Dawe

River House

Travel is not always about being pampered with a spa on a cruise. Many travellers are looking to supplement their holiday by assisting charitable foundations and make a difference. It’s the combination of supporting their charity and volunteering their time and labour that is satisfying. Now what about “doing good in the world” through a profit-based company?

Shanga, a commercial business situated on the outskirts of Arusha in north east Tanzania, is an interesting case study. It’s even on the suggested visit list given to volunteeers staying at nearby The School of St Jude. Shanga states its mission as supporting and empowering the disabled and their communities with a commitment to sustainable practices. And as a recent visitor I add: heart-warming and inspiring.

Niwaeli and friends

Shanga, the Swahili word for bead, is the brainchild of Saskia Rechsteiner, who in 2006 designed necklaces of African fabrics and glass beads (sourced from her children’s marbles) for the Christmas Fair in Arusha. They were an instant hit; everyone wanted one. To meet the demand Saskia sought a workshop and local jewellery workers. Enter Niwaeli the first employee – who happened to be profoundly deaf, mute and illiterate yet determined not to be shut away. She wanted to learn, work and be useful. Something powerful happened at their meeting and the embryonic business charted a new course.

Tigger at work

“I began to realise how much you could transform people’s lives,” says Saskia, adding, “virtually no one who is deaf receives an education in Tanzania.” The disabled generally receive no government assistance or special services in developing countries and some are abandoned for the streets. Shanga’s special gift as a company is not just to give charity but to provide the dignity of work, a liveable wage and secure a rightful place within the community.

ten green bottles wall

Shanga is a profitable company designing and manufacturing “eccentric” jewellery, glassware, home décor and accessories such as earrings, bracelets and hand-woven scarves. These products are in high demand in trendy boutiques across Tanzania, Kenya and overseas. Recently fame came though unexpected publicity that money could not buy. Amal Alamudin, then fiancée of actor George Clooney, bought a unique piece, now known as the Amal necklace, when on holiday in Tanzania. Later she appeared wearing the chunky wood and glass necklace on the front page of scores of top magazines seen by millions worldwide. Suddenly the world wanted to know about Shanga.

hard at work on the Indian weaving loom

Much more than beads and Jewellery are produced at Shanga. There are hefty beer steins, delicate champagne flutes, funky ornaments and even chandeliers. I investigate the blast furnace where an employee instructs a visitor on glassblowing and shaping, with mixed results, then move on past the Indian weaving loom in full swing to the busy workshop that opens on two sides to the courtyard. The employees are happy to greet me and show me their beadwork using recycled coloured glass. Communication is easy and natural. I know the song about ten green bottles but here two sides of the workshop are walls of hanging green bottles gently clinking. In the middle of the courtyard standing near a Dickensian machine I meet Mikko, a retired glass craftsman from Finland and now technical adviser, who shows me how multi-coloured beads are made blending recycled glass bottles. “Look around you,” he says, “See how it shimmers.” Indeed, it does. The earth around us is colourfully carpeted in tiny shards of broken glass.

My visit includes lunch, so I walk a few crunching metres to River House, an adjunct success story. This thatched pavilion-based restaurant is edged by a babbling stream and, like Shanga’s grounds, set in the shady remnant of Burka Coffee Estate. Saskia started with a café for visitors but it has evolved into this fine dining establishment, perhaps the only one of its kind for thousands of kilometres. It’s a regular highlight stop for tour groups and a hit with me.

Tanzanite ring shop

Before leaving I tour the up-market shop. As expected it’s more representative than extensive yet illustrates the range and extent of Shanga’s eclectic designs. I am particularly interested in Tanzanite and have to ask the price of fancied ring. While beautiful, after seeing the price I decide the ring, er, won’t quite fit in my suitcase.

Saskia Rechsteiner sums up her philosophy, and I suggest her success, as, “I can’t bear the idea some people have, that the only thing we can do in Africa is hold out our hands for money. What we want to do here is make a good-quality products that people want to buy, and which helps so many deaf people earn a salary, who otherwise would have nothing.” Shanga is a wonderful place with an extraordinary business model driven by an amazing owner. It demonstrates how the market-based efficiency of private enterprise, when harnessed to passionate humanitarian ideals, can do (a lot of) good in the world. Just ask Shanga’s empowered employees and their families – and human rights lawyer Mrs Clooney.

Amal necklace
the Amal necklace
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Remnant of Burka Coffee Estate

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